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Saturday, January 25, 2014

"The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov

First appeared in Stellar. Reprinted by Donald A. Wollheim & Arthur W. Saha, Terry Carr, Gordon R. Dickson, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, and Michael Philips--seven of which are major field retrospectives. It won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus awards.

Andrew wants his independence, his freedom. Although unprecedented, the rights are granted. It decides to wear clothes. When Andrew gets lost on the way to the library (a robot? how? The maps don't correlate well with the terrain. Asimov would have probably written it differently after the ubiquity of GPS), young men spot the robot and realize it must be the freed robot, so they order it to strip and dismantle itself. It must obey according the laws of robotics, but George, a former owner of Andrew, saves the day by pretending to order Andrew to attack. Andrew cannot, but the ruse works.

George and Andrew work to make a law to prevent people from asking robots to destroy themselves. Meanwhile, Andrew writes a history of robots and tries to get more rights for robots. He gets an organic makeover, and George gets more robotic parts. Andrew studies his own body, determined to give himself a human body--breathing and consuming.

Andrew reveals his desire to be fully human--both legally and organically.

Since reading the Wikipedia article discussed in "Robot Dreams" and "Little Lost Robot", I've been reading the robot stories as stories of slavery. To a degree, they can function that way. However, the metaphor breaks down when it comes to their invention, construction, mechanical nature, the three laws of robotics, and their understanding human things like death: 
"[Andrew] knew [dying] was the human way of ceasing to function. It was an involuntary and irreversible dismantling."
Also when told to strip, a human would do so with protest, trembling, or not do so and fight or flee. Nonetheless, it is a metaphor with such a strong correlation that it's difficult to read the robots as robots--things other than human. This story in particular may have resonated well with civil rights movement.

The story was made into a film released in 1999. Unfortunately, it was not as popular:

  • 37% Rotten Tomatoes-95 reviews 
  • 42% Metacritic-31 reviews 
  • 6.7/10 IMDb-61,789 votes
I find myself falling in with the majority of IMDb, ranking it as a solid entertainment. I did see it in Spanish, but the complaints like Roger Ebert's that Robin Williams becomes mechanical as a human was, I felt, realistic. It seems unlikely that one's personality would alter so quickly. For some, the addition of the romance may have killed it because it wasn't in the story, but I thought it charming and moving if not completely convincing except in an intellectual way. It does take the story of Andrew's humanizing to the next level and bring it full circle--not just the learning curve of not understanding death to being brought to its door but also understanding love. One could say that Asimov's original story ending itself implies the same.

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